Atlantis returned to Earth last July, marking the end of the NASA Space Shuttle program.  Many have lamented the end of the NASA generation.  The cover of that month’s The Economist went even so far as to call it “the end of the space age”.  That’s a little far-fetched, and many have cited NASA’s successors as a new wave in Space Age 2.0

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Many expect Space Age 2.0 to herald a new era of private citizens making regular flights into orbit.  Some, then, would argue that the big event in spaceflight last year was not the final flight of the Atlantis, but rather the continuing build towards the permanent operation of SpaceShip Two, Virgin Galactic’s 2-crew, 6-passenger ship.

virgin-galactic-in-flight

Originally conceived as a smaller rocket, designed by aerospace guru Burt Rutan, SpaceShip Two won 2004’s Ansari X-Prize, worth $10 million.  SS2 will take paying customers 65 miles up into the atmosphere, giving them a taste of space and an unbeatable view.

The ship hit a critical milestone in May, when its unique ‘feathering’ system was deployed for the first time over the Mojave Desert in California.

The move bends the ship’s tail into a nearly perpendicular match to the fuselage.  Virgin Galactic says feathering will dramatically decrease turbulence from re-entry, hopefully delivering a smooth and safe ride for the already-booked 455 passengers.  Each passenger has secured a spot by dropping a $200,000 deposit to fly aboard the spacecraft, possibly as early as 2013.

First Feather Flight (FF01) of SpaceShipTwo
SpaceShipTwo in full feather wing mode on a rapid descent from its drop altitude of 51,500 feet over Mojave,CA Wednesday May 4, 2011. The feathered wing is at its full 65 degree angle and remained at this angle for 1 minute and 15 seconds. The craft descended in this configuration at a near vertical angle at a rate of 15,500 feet per minute. The craft was reconfigured to normal glide mode at 33,500 feet. All objectives of the flight were met. The flight duration of SpaceShipTwo following release was approximately 11 minutes and 5 seconds. This photograph was taken with high-powered telescopes from the ground.

Virgin Galactic’s head honcho Richard Branson is just one of several wealthy entrepreneurs looking to get a foothold in space: PayPal’s Elon Musk and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos amongst the most popular candidates to rival Virgin Galactic.  Musk and Bezos, however, are not only aiming for wealthy tourist rides, but are also building private spaceships for transportation of astronauts and cargo to the International Space Station.

Branson’s Virgin Galactic currently happens to be the most ready for prime time, and SS2 stole the space show for 2011.

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